Whether for gun control quickly passed after the Christchurch mosque attacks, or for far-reaching lockdowns and border closures to keep Covid out and prevent thousands of deaths, the government of New Zealand is admired around the world. That’s partly because the government’s many mistakes don’t reach the international stage. The supposedly sterling Covid response is a prime example: those who lost their jobs after the pandemic began were given twice the amount given to those who lost their jobs before Covid, a tacit admission that the existing financial support was not sufficient to sustain a decent quality of life. In my neighborhood of South Auckland, which is majority Māori and Pasifika, teenagers were already dropping out of high school to take up high-risk employment in supermarkets and factories to support their families after parents lost their jobs, even before the pandemic. To this day, the New Zealand government hasn’t addressed the problem, leaving its racialized poor and disabled to suffer.
So, when the New Zealand government, in its now-famous way, takes decisive action, whom is it acting for? Whom is it leaving behind? Why does the “kindest” government in the world regard some of its communities as disposable — and what does that mean for climate justice?
New Zealand’s flagship climate legislation is the 2019 Zero Carbon Act, which set emissions targets to be met every five years as a pathway to net zero carbon by 2050, with an exception for methane. The law also created a Climate Change Commission, made up of commissioners from a range of backgrounds. Notably, the Commission has more market experts than Māori. The Commission is responsible for issuing analysis and recommendations, as well as measuring the government’s progress. Both the government and the commission have published hundreds of pages of recommendations. These documents comprehensively explain which emissions come from where — approximately 50 percent from agriculture, 40 percent from fuel combustion (including transport), and 10 percent from waste and industrial processes — but they fail to consider why emissions come from these sources.
The divorcing of the “why” from the “what” is an important tool of colonization. Decontextualizing current events — ignoring why things are the way they are — obscures any obligation for decision makers and corporations to rectify past wrongs and foster justice. By ignoring the forceful displacement of Māori in New Zealand, and the exploitation of our land, this kind of thinking legitimizes colonial governance based on land theft and far-reaching violence. That colonialism has locked in climate change is undeniable, and the denial of context in climate action has led the government to propose a strangely narrow set of solutions.
A colonial farming hub in the British Empire, New Zealand’s major exports are cattle, dairy, and crops for global markets, which makes our methane emissions untouchable. Methane emissions from agriculture account for about 50 percent of our total emissions, and there is no support for farmers to get out of the climate-polluting dairy business.
After decades of fierce campaigning by Māori advocates and allies, the government has finally begun to recognize the importance of Māori knowledge and leadership, with references in the Zero Carbon Act and climate change plans to the importance of utilizing Māori knowledge systems in legislation. However, the government still constrains Māori experts to advisory groups and financially incentivizes Māori to participate in extractive industries, claiming it is looking after Māori by helping us unlock our land’s productivity. The official Emissions Reduction Plan proposes that the government work to “identify opportunities to build the value of Māori agribusinesses” and “support Māori agribusinesses to develop innovative land-use solutions to improve productivity.”
The New Zealand plan to tackle climate change demonstrates the limits of the government’s colonial imagination. Our government can’t comprehend that there may be ways of being that don’t preserve the status quo but move beyond the Western, imperialist, and capitalistic forces that have shaped it.
So what are Māori imagining for New Zealand, or, as we call it, Aotearoa? The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, under the guidance of Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu, traveled the country to hear from Māori. In 2015, they produced Matike Mai, a report that proposes, among other constitutional structures, one made of three governance spheres: a sphere for the Crown to govern, a sphere for Māori to govern, and one in which Māori and the Crown come together to share governance on matters relevant to both realms. Already, Māori nations are operating their own health and education programs and taking the reins on government-owned conservation land. The leap yet to be made is the redistribution of power to Māori so that, beyond merely taking care of parks, we can start to address climate change in public transport and urban design, and even take on the biggest beast of them all — designing economies and ways of caring for each other beyond capitalism.
A common solution for many countries, carbon markets have in some cases incentivized the abuse of indigenous people. (Under the Clean Development Mechanism established by the Kyoto Protocol, for example, projects that have displaced indigenous communities or superseded their governance — the Alto Maipo hydroelectric project in Chile, the Kachung afforestation project in Uganda — have profited by selling carbon credits.) Instead, we ask for economies that expand the bounds of community, much like the interlinked ecosystems around us. Most concretely, we need to redistribute resources to seed local economies of mutual aid. We should recognize teachers, firefighters, nurses, small-scale gardeners, and cooks as climate workers who will nourish and care for us through these increasingly challenging times.
Urgency is often invoked in climate movements as a justification to remain within the contours of the status quo. Designing solutions that are led by those most impacted by climate change, like remodeling governance to entrench indigenous decision-making and expertise, are dismissed as being too complicated to throw political weight behind; it’s easier to compromise with the corporations, which, though most responsible for contributing to climate change, can’t risk their quarterly profits. Either way, compromise comes with a cost, and climate movements must no longer sacrifice frontline communities for greenwashed gains.
In August, areas of Aotearoa have been drowned in record-breaking rain, displacing some 1,200 people. As summer nears, I think of my home region, Hawke’s Bay, as we anticipate the heartbreaking droughts and wildfires that have become a common occurrence in recent years. Climate action should have begun before I was even born, and now each second is charged with the need to act quickly and on a large scale. Even if we have to start small, on the streets we live on, we can grow our movement by acting in solidarity with frontline communities, demanding justice for the harms of empire, and moving beyond colonially determined false solutions.
India Logan-Riley, from Ngāti Kahungunu ki Ngāti Hawea, Rongomwaiwahine and Rangitāne, is the climate justice organiser at ActionStation.